Wednesday, June 24, 2009

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Brandon Temple on Shelach Lecha

In case you happened to have looked at the “All About Me” section of my booklet, you may have noticed my favorite prayer is the “Sh’ma.” I like it because it is repeated more often than any other prayer and also because it helps me to concentrate on how proud I am to be a Jew.

Little did I know until recently that part of the Sh’ma is found in my portion – and in fact, I just read it as my maftir! The third paragraph of the Sh’ma is found at the very end of my portion; this is the part that speaks about the tzitzit, the fringes found at the end of a tallit.

These tzitzit have many different meanings, but mostly, they are reminders of the 613 commandments.

But this paragraph doesn’t just remind us about all good things we’re supposed to do. It also teaches us how to do them.

Very often, people will do favors for others hoping to get a reward. People do it all the time. It’s an old custom when kids begin their formal Jewish studies, to dip Hebrew letters into honey so that the study of Torah will be sweet for them. We have a similar custom here at Beth El. When we contribute to a class discussion, our teacher gives us M and M’s. I know that I would contribute even without the M and M’s! But it’s nice to have them too.

Well, in the paragraph from our portion, the Torah tells us that we should wear the tzitizt, “Le’m’a’an tizzzkeru,” so that we will be reminded. In other words, so that we will remember that God rescued us from Egypt and then gave us these commandments. It is traditional to stretch out the “z” sound in Tizzzkeru, because if we mistakenly pronounce it “tisskeru,” with an “s” instead of a “z,” then it would mean “you shall be rewarded,” which implies that the only reason to follow the commandments would be to get a reward.

That’s something we should try to avoid. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

I agree with that completely, and I’ve learned this recently in many ways. First, as part of my mitzvah project, I’ve been going to Greenwich Woods Nursing Home and visiting senior citizens there. I usually spend about two hours there, mostly helping them with their bowling, using a Wii video game. There’s one person there named Theresa, who always asks for me. I’ve developed a real bond with her. Last month, when I visited her, she offered to buy me a soda and I said, “No, that’s OK.” This was before I had even studied about the tzitzit, but I understood already that I was getting so much out of this, simply from seeing her be happy, that I did need any reward. That was reward enough.

Generally speaking, I like making people happy and often will cheer people up when they are in a bad mood. Sometimes when a young child is unhappy and makes a frown, I mimic their face, and most of the time it makes them laugh.

I’ve learned about how to do this kind of mitzvah from my dad. He often goes away to identify the remains of people who have died in tragedies like Hurricane Katrina or the nightclub fire near Providence. I know that one reason he did this was to set an example for me. But it wasn’t just an example of how to do a good deed – it was an example of why. There was no reward for all his efforts, except for the reward of knowing he had helped the families of the dead.

So it is true that I have learned the lesson taught by the paragraph regarding tzitzit in my portion. But I wouldn’t want to carry this thing too far. As I become a bar mitzvah today, I know that I am not leading these prayers because I’m hoping to be rewarded with lots of gifts. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to go through all the trouble of returning those gifts either! And keep in mind that I’ll be donating the money that we saved by making my bar mitzvah invitations myself to a number of medical charities: American Heart Association, Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, Tourette’s Foundation, and Cystic Fibrosis.

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